• The Role of Government

    The Queen’s coronavirus broadcast, with its overtones of Winston Churchill and Vera Lynn, prompted me to reflect on the tribulations my parents’ generation suffered during the Second World War – and I imagine that those parallels, given her own wartime experience, were very much in the Queen’s mind as she delivered her address.

    The two crises have been of course very different in nature, but the Second Word War generated the same losses and stresses to family life, and the same social and economic dislocation as we are now suffering. In important ways, however, what was at stake in the War presented an even greater threat to our way of life – a virus is dangerous enough as an existential challenge to our civilisation, but is not in the same league as that presented by the possible arrival of invading foreign troops on our doorsteps. Such an ending to the Second World War would have meant “game over”; following such an outcome, there would have been no “lifting of the lockdown” in sight for my parents and their contemporaries.

    As we fight our own present-day battles, it behoves us therefore to draw strength and learn from the example set by those earlier generations, and to emulate the courage, fortitude and resolution they showed.

    As the Queen indicated, now is the time to pull together – and while that requires shoulders to be put to the wheel by each of us as individuals, we should note that in both wartime and in dealing with the coronavirus crisis, it was on the state (or government) that the real responsibility fell. Whatever we as individuals could manage, in the face of either the threatened foreign invaders or the virus, neither could be effectively repelled without utilising the organising and leadership power of our governments.

    It is only in such circumstances that we see clearly the true role of the state. That role is to do what none of us in our private capacities can do – that is, to set national targets and goals, and to mobilise our resources and to focus and organise our efforts as a nation to bring about what needs to be done. Only government has the authority and legitimacy to deploy our resources in that collective and united fashion.

    Only government has the ability to legislate, prescribe, proscribe and regulate, to compel compliance and to punish those who break ranks. We accept these constraints on our freedom to do (or not to do) what we like because we understand that such restriction is a small price to pay for the greater good of us all.

    It could be argued (as I am inclined to do) that these fundamental truths have just as much force in ordinary times as they do in moments of crisis. It is always the case that governments have the power to act in the public interest in a way that is beyond individual or private entities.

    Only governments are able to take the wider view and then to act for the common good. Their objectives in normal times may not be so clearly matters of life and death as in times of crisis; but they will almost always be guided by a perception that our lives can be made better and our affairs can be organised more constructively and with less friction.

    So, the next time you hear that “a bonfire of regulations” is needed – a proposal apparently made with no regard for the purposes served by those regulations and in the belief that a regulation is by definition an unjustifiable intrusion into a “free-for-all”, ask yourself if our lives are better or worse by virtue of the government doing what it is elected to do – that is, to set standards in innumerable matters such as conditions at work or making buildings fire and earthquake safe.

    A proposal to judge regulations (or other governmental actions) by their number rather than their value and purpose is a statement of political prejudice rather than a careful analysis of what is required by a successful and well-run society. When the crisis is over, we should not forget the vital and indispensable role played by our government.

    Bryan Gould
    8 April 2020

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